Shooner Helon (Main page)

Saratov - Istanbul
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New Odyssey of Helon

text - Evgeny Solodkiy, translation to English - Galina Mead

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Chapter 1 Saratov-Istanbul

We used to live an idle life of pleasure and joy.  But when there’s too much jolliness around for too long, one suddenly starts to realise that bridges are too low, banks are too close and laws are just ridiculous.
And the next day becomes too predictable.
So the Commander tired of shallow fun and invented a New Real Odyssey.  It might sound strange but there was even some support for this Odyssey.  The Dubki  company presented us with several boxes of deliciously-porky tinned preserves.   Andrey Sokulskii’s gift was a bunch of vodka crates decorated with his own portrait (poets - even when depicted on bottle labels - remain poets).  Efim Katz was going to donate a whole kitchen but we eventually agreed on a much more compact bounty – a stash of cash.  The rest helped us with maps and sailing directions, yacht ropes, or just with words of caution and advice.
Attracted by the aroma of a proper adventure, a gang of real adventurers arrived from the furthest corners of Russia. At that point – between Saratov and Istanbul - Helon’s team consisted of:




Commander-Artist Solodkii

The creator of Helon and the author of the idea of this journey, the Commander is responsible for his own canvases and considers the Odyssey to be one of them.

Captain Berezhnizkii-Volzhskii
A giant who is possessed of enormous strength and a vast experience of range conquering.  His know-how of winch-less sail and rigging sets is truly unbeatable.


The Lone Wolf, ex-husband of Miss Krivoy Rog, Denis.  Thanks to his light frame Denis is capable of making contact with any animate object.  He is also very talented in communicating with ‘the locals’, although not always as a consummate master of tact.


Delightfully neat but tired of searching for the ideal of female beauty is Konstantin Magnitogorskii.  He has decided to devote his excess of love and tenderness to Helon’s engine, and to be in charge of oil levels and water temperatures. 


Silently misanthropic Elisey is capable of dealing mutely with impossible tasks.  He has known Helon since his childhood and his marine knots are truly rope made art.


Precise and pragmatic, Lina is a born administrator.  Her distinguishing ability is to find stuff which has been seemingly lost forever in the bowels of Helon, some of which she may never have seen before.


Enigmatic Kaya floats around like an octopus leaving a plume of smiles behind her.  With a degree as a medical doctor she’s in charge of the crew’s well-being, bravely taking all maladies upon herself.


An experienced pilot is Konstantinovitch.  His responsibility is to deal impeccably and capably with any form of irresponsibility including alcoholic intoxication. 



Captain Fedorov is a powerful loner who has seen it all.  After passing a regular lock he’s always keen to report to traffic controllers about anchors being in order.


Navigator Yura is a musician in his heart who’s really good at counting the rhythms of reality while staying enviably tranquil.


Resilient Garrik’s favourite phrase is “No Problems”.


Cat Flint was stolen from freezing Volgodonsk.



Part 1.  Saratov, Locks.
Any journey starts with the purchase of provisions.  Backed by the financial support of our sponsor Maria Kitchen Studio we ventured to a remote corner of the Saratov region called Sokur.  It takes so long to get there that when we at last arrived we had to buy as much as possible, just out of respect for the time we wasted in traffic jams.  We were lucky to have Zepov with us. He was able to wake the sleepy Sokur merchants up and use their lethargy to achieve some real bargains.

After filling the Helon’s bowels with the provisions, we realised that even if our journey might be a long one it definitely would be hearty.  But for the first leg of our adventure - a transition along some of Russia’s rivers and through her locks - we quickly dispensed with any romantic image of Helon.  Bridges and locks built in industrial years are not made for tall masts, and navigation rules prohibit going through the locks under sail so as not to detract the traffic controllers from their direct duties.
In a quiet corner under cover of darkness the masts of Helon were taken down by the giant Berezhnizkii and for a while were laid on the ground in anticipation of a crane.  Later they were returned to the boat but in a horizontal position - to the obvious relief of the crane driver who was almost certain that he was participating in an oligarch yacht robbery.
Early the next morning the unrecognisable Helon approached the Saratov embankment and then - good-byes having been said to the local public - melted away in the sunshine amidst a rumble of timpani.
And so the Real New Odyssey had commenced.

On the Volga
Our steering wheel was in the reliably strong hands of Berezhnizkii-Volzhskii, who only ever paused to make some abstract managing-conducting movements.  Under almost every bridge Berezhnizkii produced some sort of noise. He called them songs but - as is the case with so many giants - such songs are invariably rather quiet and monotonous.

The slow majestic current of the Volga was taking Helon by abandoned villages nestling on the edges of huge rocks.  Occasionally on the banks somebody would be waving desperately with a white scarf.  But the crew had no wish to waste their time with the local sirens, preferring instead to maintain a deeply meditative ship’s discipline.

As expected, the Volga transition was not a short one.  Nothing was seriously in danger of breaking but the crew, especially Kostya, were keeping a good eye on the state of the engine.  Every now and then we docked in various small towns for the sake of technical checks and to demonstrate Helon to the local aboriginal intelligentsia.  The above mentioned intelligentsia - having thoughtfully tested some of the vodka with the poet’s portrait – invariably pronounced themselves completely satisfied with Helon.
Sometimes the banks of the Volga disappeared into the Russian vastness and only the flurries of dusty wind and the absence of dolphins could convince the crew that Helon was not yet at sea.
Kaya and Lina were competing in a gently feminine manner by cooking delightful feasts, Elisey was learning new knots, Kostya was training himself in cutting gaskets for the oil filter, the Commander was studying navigation on an iPad and Denis was wistfully tasting the boat’s provisions.  Berezhnizkii was turning the steering wheel and singing. Naturally.
And at last Helon came to the Locks. 

The Lock System
Theoretically the job of a lock system is to provide water levelling to guarantee navigation.  But the width of these gates, the mysterious concrete constructions hidden in water, the mechanical traps, and the aggressively scary sculptures of soldiers – all of that led our crew to believe that those locks were actually providing a defence of the internal river ways from navigation by potential enemies.
To calm the crew, the Commander had invited pilot Konstantinovitch who was practically born in those locks and who had worked there long enough to gain the rank of Main Controller.
As with all knowledgeable people Konstantinovitch was chain-smoking really cheap cigarettes and never letting a radio set out of his hands.  He kept opening the locks majestically and thanking young controllers protectively.  Every time a new gate opened we were hoping there would be the sea.  But it didn’t happen; only new gates and the narrow canal labyrinth were stretching in front of us.
The lock workers brought some apples and grapes as gifts to Helon’s crew, either out of respect to Konstantinovitch or out of their natural generosity.
Sometimes the current of the lowered water ran so strongly that our boat was taken like a feather, with the helmsman no more than a spectator. In fact in one of the locks an unusually strong current grabbed all 80 tonnes of Helon and aimed it at the controllers’ seat. Only the claws of our figurehead Gargoyle saved us from catastrophe.

After the 17th lock Captain Berezhnizkii – who was longing for vast scope - got very depressed, and in the small town of Kalatch he vanished among the broken street lamps.  He still wasn’t with us when we reached Tsymla – a huge and insidious reservoir which was waiting for us after the last lock.

Tsymla – Volgodonsk – Rostov
While still in Saratov we had heard many grudging stories from captains who had managed to cross Tsymla, and about the treachery of that reservoir.  Its guile consists of numerous shoals, waves and fog.  Winds which have been running amok across the historically freedom-loving steppes of the Don arrive at Tsymla and create sharp three metre high waves, dropping boats off narrow waterways, turning them upside down, and playing with their remains until they cease to exist in thick fog.
Tearing waves apart with the Gargoyle’s claws, her engine roaring, Helon was heading stubbornly towards the south.  Even after several nights of a lack of decent sleep and left without his cigarettes and intoxication, Konstantinovitch would not leave the helmsman, boosting his confidence that soon, very soon, everything would be all right.  But the wind was getting stronger and stronger, and to survive Helon had to speed towards the far away glow of an eastern lee shore.

The next day Volgodonsk came in sight through the fog.  Slipping into the shelter of its harbour, Helon buried herself tiredly in front of a small Armenian restaurant and, having set free the thoroughly knackered Konstantinovitch, she came to rest.
Surprisingly the small town was full of people who were rather sympathetic to Helon.  This picture of general benevolence was completed by the appearance of Alexey Chirkin, an old friend of the schooner who had previously accompanied us on our journeys to Black Waters.
Receiving all the well-wishers’s gifts with ‘resignation’ and after some rest, Helon was topped up with unusually cheap diesel oil. At that point Captain Fedorov arrived from Saratov.  Full of energy, he immediately organised strict discipline on board and after passing a couple of insignificant locks, with “all anchors intact” he managed to lead Helon to the Don river.    
In spite of its romantic past the Don turned out to be a rather narrow river with an infinite number of tankers and bulk-carriers.  But the local fishermen were following the fine traditions of Cossack hospitality and treated us to gifts of free fish. However they were far too modest to go aboard to see and appreciate the Commander’s paintings.
Passing by, enormous bulk-carriers boomed out salutes to us and -  just once at night-time -  we were called “a mosquito” over the radio, the observer having taken the temporary LED light on Helon’s stern for a flying insect.  Winding along the many turns of the Don, Helon ran aground several times but the strong current helped her to get clear and eventually the schooner arrived at Rostov.

Relaxed while roaming the liberal steppes of the Don, the crew apparently showed too little respect for the local discipline, and when switching on the radio were seriously lectured by traffic controllers about the importance and strictness of Russian laws.  After timidly spending a night on the roads in the right place, Helon left Rostov forever in the fog of an early morning, miraculously slipping under a bridge-guillotine.

Obukhov Yacht Club
Anybody who goes around the world in a yacht considers it an honour to park their boat on a mooring in Obukhov Yacht Club.  Besides there is a small crane there, and it has now become a tradition among boat people -  just before making their way around the world - to put their masts up in Obukhov.  Ivan, the club owner, artfully handling the toy crane, managed to return Helon’s masts back in place ... a feat which took even him by surprise.   The fact that the crane jib was only half the length of our mainmast had initially made the success of the operation seem so unlikely.

But by skilful calculation, Ivan’s experience and pure courage, multiplied by the crew’s passionate wish to be out at sea achieved the end result, and in a couple of days Helon started to look like her normal self again.  Mounting  of the rigging was done by the lightweight Denis, who later swore that while at the top of the mainmast he could see the glistening sea surface in front of us. 
Since really strict discipline was not often needed, some of the functions of Captain Fedorov could be transferred to the navigator Yurii.  As expected from all ex-rock stars, Yurii Volgodonskii wasn’t a person of many words, although distantly friendly and pathologically calm.  He’d been through many seas and oceans in his life, and as with any respected sailor was rather reluctant to tell skimpy stories about his past.     
Out of a blue the crew was joined by Garrik who suddenly arrived from Moscow.  Garrik was able to keep smiling in any circumstances and his catch phrase was “No Problems”.  Now the schooner’s crew was complete and the only impediment was to get permission to go out to sea.
Yurii promptly contacted an agent who later appeared on board in the middle of the night, insulted everybody by his odour of cheap cigarettes,   took our papers and the money required, and evaporated once more into the darkness.  Strangely enough it worked, and at the appointed time Helon was waiting at the Azov Port customs terminal.  On board the custom officers and guards were suspiciously polite and accommodating, although in response to the Commander’s boasting during his boat tour they just noted abruptly that one shouldn’t really focus on an antique cabinet and on the canvases by a famous artist.  After receiving all the papers needed plus a few extra clouds of cigarette smoke from the agent, Helon left the port, the crew no longer permitted to step on Russian soil.


The Sea of Azov
To start with our freedom didn’t seem very liberal – the extremely shallow sea of Azov has a very narrow waterway, so Helon was balancing almost like a tram on its rails.  That waterway is six metres deep and has almost vertical walls, while the depth of the sea itself is only about one metre in that area.  That’s why a boat follows almost a trough with no chance at all to leave the seaway.  One can relax a little bit - providing there is nothing coming the other way - but experienced captains use the situation by scraping the walls with their shipboards to get rid of shells.  That’s exactly what Helon did, and as a result thousands of river molluscs found their new salted asylum.
Eventually the sea became deeper, there was no need to stay in a waterway anymore and a fore staysail - one of the white flags of freedom - was raised on a freshly cleaned Helon.  The only limit to our freedom now was marked by the lights of small Russian and Ukrainian settlements on the horizon.  From time to time we came across some sea-tired tankers and bulk-carriers, strange names on huge rusted boards.
Next evening Helon was approaching the Kerch Strait.  Just before that point there was a significant amount of traffic, either queuing or hesitant to come out into the Black sea.  Having found a place to spend the night across the Achilleon cape - right above the sunken shrine of Achilles - the crew spent their time sending their last non-roaming phone messages and then, with the first rays of the sun, the schooner began her journey into the Strait.  It turned out to be rather peaceful.  Even the radio, switched on as a precaution, was silent.  Helon had obviously stopped being of any interest to Russia.  And the lack of interest from a state is a great freedom indeed.


The Crimean coast was slowly but surely disappearing into the mist, whilst a tail wind was filling the schooner’s sails.  Toasting our newly acquired freedom with the Commander’s whisky, suddenly everybody wanted to turn the steering wheel (for everybody knows that proper freedom consists of 360 degrees).  After a while - and after the tiller rope was broken - the steering wheel was turning much more easily although not nearly as effectively.  In any event,  Helon was flying away at full backstay into the darkness of the night.  The gliding-under-full-sail schooner was making bulk-carriers change their route, whilst the rarely-encountered fishing boats were dropping all their catch overboard while crossing themselves.  Then the wind changed its direction, and now under a gulf wind with close reefed topsails Helon was heading towards Sinop.  The boat was heeling over to its portholes and the Gargoyle was getting used to ripping the waves apart with its claws once again.  The cautious Commander had ordered sails to be bought down from the main and fore masts and he later turned out to be right. The wind was strengthening, and under only a staysail and a balloon sail the boat was managing six knots.  It was a very unusual feeling watching those eighty tons of cast iron behaving like a youthful windsurfer, jumping from wave to wave, and bravely cutting the sea’s surface.  Time after time thorough the roar of the wind and waves one could hear the sound of the victorious neighing of Helon.        

By early morning the wind had calmed down a bit and the rising sun had illuminated the line of the horizon.  It was absolutely vacant.  Gone were the seagulls and dolphins. Helon was on her own with limitless freedom.  There were neither white scarves, nor ships, nor faraway shores, nor ridiculous laws.  There were no shoals either, just two kilometres of emptiness under the keel.
Moving in glistening sloping waves, Helon started to feel like the centre of the Universe, towering lonely above a horizontal stretch of water.  Day after day a steady easterly was blowing, the schooner with its steering wheel fixed was heading towards Sinop, nothing was changing, and the horizon embraced us all in its ideal monotony.  The past stayed overboard, and the present wasn’t there yet.  Emptiness had engulfed Helon.
One after another the members of the crew were turning inwards, leaving only a fluster of crumpled bodies around the boat.  The only relief was in clouds, and in more and more jam jars.  But at last a strange cloud formation appeared on the horizon.  The watchful Commander gave orders to take down the sails, but upon coming closer the clouds turned into huge mountains.  That was our first encounter with the Osman empire.
The Osman Empire
Seeing a foreign country, the idle & lethargic crew now started to energetically get rid of the remains of absolute freedom and sweet teeth by scrubbing the deck.  The ladies received an order to create an Osman flag, after meticulous study of the correlation of stars and crescents.  The result exceeded our expectations. It was as good as a real flag – an appliqué sewn through with sturdy Russian threads.
Then something unpleasant happened.  While in Volgodonsk Denis had befriended a cat called Flint and invited him to join us onboard.  Not everybody was happy to have the creature around, but the cat was so timid and sweet - and Denis was so eloquent - that Flint eventually became part of the crew and even got his own daily rations.  But at his first sight of the Turkish mountains the cat fell overboard and in spite of our desperate attempts to rescue him we didn’t succeed.  Flint was gone, into the waves of the Black sea.  Though later in a small Turkish fishing village we heard some tales in broken English about a scary shaggy black creature tearing their nets in search of fish.

The coast was coming closer and closer, the mountains were turning higher and higher, and among the screeching of seagulls we started to identify some throaty foreign songs in the air.  Helon had reached the port of Inebolu.  Amazingly, whilst the rocking of the sea had disappeared, thanks to a quadrophenia of minaret calls our dizziness continued. 
As in all good stories a port guard named Burchin had appeared on board. Although his position was one of strict responsibility, this was largely nullified by his memories of working in Siberia.  The formidable shape of Burchin was in stark contrast to his charmingly childlike smile. Similarly his uniform was in stark contrast to his friendliness.
With his help Helon spent several days in Inebolu, using electricity and water free of charge.  Burchin still remembered some Russian words and could easily tune into our evening conversation when accompanied by the poet’s portrait.  The members of the crew strolled along the cute town streets of truly Osman Inebolu, plucking low hanging oranges and confusing the local merchants, who were unaccustomed to get no money for jam.
Interestingly enough - and it probably applies to other places in Northern Turkey too - male hair grows very fast here.  Hence every quarter of the town has at least a couple of barber shops.  What happens to female hair isn’t very obvious, for all the ladies are covered in scarves to the tips of their noses.
Our idle time in Inebolu was interrupted by the appearance onboard of a smiley person.  The Harbour Master.  Learning that Helon didn’t have a translog the smiley person looked startled and through Burchin started to explain that it would be a good idea to get one.  The most popular words in his vocabulary seemed to be “problem” and “yek”.  Unfortunately -  based on their Russian experience - the crew knew very well the meaning of the word “problem”, but the enigmatic “yek” reminded them a bit of a swishing scimitar. So they decided to listen to the smiley person and to go somewhere else.  Helon ventured into the open sea, but there was no wind and the rocking was so violent that the Commander took the decision to return to Inebolu.  Within fifteen minutes the harbour master had turned up again, this time accompanied by a slouching silhouette.  The silhouette took a single glance at Helon and in his speech we could identify not only the words “problem” and “yek” but also the unpleasantly recognisable word “police”.  The crew doubted they could use rocking waves in the sea as a decent excuse not to have a translog, so they quickly invented a legend about leaking engine oil.  Truth be told, it wasn’t much of a legend anyway.  The slouching head of the local police gave them two hours to mend the problem, and then waited for them to finish without disembarking.  Poor Burchin - stuck between his duty and friendship – could do nothing but run to the nearest shop to buy some oil.  There was no choice. After a while Helon was heading out to sea again, fighting the wind, rocking on the waves and heading towards the Bosphorus.
Having spent her youth in quiet river waters, Helon could probably have guessed that waves at sea are much higher.  But when it rocks so that toilets are falling over, now that was a surprise.  Various stuff was spread on the floor, crockery, pans, you name it.  Struggling through jam puddles, the slightly green members of the crew were decisively continuing to fulfil their duties.  Half of them were gloomily carrying their sailors’ cross, while the other half was taking a rest in their cabins.
In the middle of the night the overheated engine stopped for some reason.  It took some time to find what looked like fishing net coiled around the propeller.  Next morning after some diving, the volunteers Garrik and Elisey had found out that Helon hadn’t actually done any damage to the Turkish fishing industry, and the problem was caused by a mooring rope.  Everything was sorted out quite quickly and several hours later Helon was on her way, bowing alternately to the Russian and to the Turkish sides of the sea.
It took us two days to reach the port of Bartin.

Hidden in a deserted gorge, the port of Bartin turned out to shelter submarines and other military vessels.  When Helon - led by a pilot boat - took her place in the port, the submarines had gone coyly to the bottom.

Barbed wire, bunker embrasures, watchtowers and underwater tunnels disappearing into mountains. The red eyes of telescopic guns checked Helon’s deck, but having found nothing suspicious backed into their concrete bunkers.
Abraham, an agent who took it upon himself to prepare our translog, spent some time working through the figures and eventually announced an amount of 480 euros.  The Commander, having been persuaded previously by the determined Marxist and yacht authority Alexey Ezhov, argued scornfully that in Marmaris it cost only 120 euros.  Sadly pale Abraham double checked his figures and suddenly it turned into 220 euros.  Later Marxist Ezhov confirmed that he was wrong and in Marmaris the amount could not be less than say 350 euros.  So knowledge is not always an advantage in an Osman marketing argument.   
Having got the translog, the next day the crew visited the local police to decorate their passports with Turkish entry stamps.  For sure we couldn’t even mention our unsanctioned visit to Inebolu.  Bartin was the first Turkish town on Helon’s route.  But whilst filling out the papers, a Turkish policeman was rather surprised to find the Commander’s details already in the computer system.  That problem was solved thanks to the Commander’s belief in his worldwide fame as an artist.  He was definitely not going to report to the police that just a few days ago he had exchanged – illegally - an amount of cash in a bank in Inebolu. 
Back on board the crew were welcomed by a coast guard team who obviously had some interest in the schooner.  What it was about we didn’t have a clue, there were no words such as “problem” or “yek” mentioned.  The guards themselves looked pretty student-like, yet while the “students” were interviewing the Commander in an unknown-to-him language, the coast guard boat started to uncover her weapons.  A little later the weapons were re-covered and the boat moored not far from Helon.
Refuelled with water from a local bathroom and stocked up with some bread, Helon left the port heading towards the Bosphorus.  But in half an hour we were caught by a coast guard rib, at which point all our passports had to be presented and the names of the crew’s parents recorded for some reason.  Feeling like naughty school children, the crew said their goodbyes to the illusion of a carefree Turkey and - still enjoying the roaring of the engine - they vanished under the cover of darkness.
What is the secret of a night mystery?  It’s a combination of mist around the boat, a moon path cast along the waves of a calming sea, the white stripes of dolphins and the flickering lights of Turkish settlements.

The Bosphorus
As calculated, Helon approached the Bosphorus in the early morning.  The Bosphorus is a narrow gap which sucks waters from the Black sea together with tankers, bulk-carriers and amateurish adventurers. The current caught Helon and took her inside the strait, past medieval castles, past enormous Turkish flags, past rocky cliffs. The strait was turning narrower and narrower, the current was growing stronger and stronger and the rising sun was blinding the crew, its light reflected off the minarets and the gilded palace walls.  This was our introduction to Istanbul, the torn city connected only by the nails of its minarets.  Massive suspension bridges across the Bosphorus were hiding in cloud.  Reckless fishing boats were whooping past just under the Gargoyle’s claws.  Of course nobody could pass by that magnificent city without a stop.  Our attempt to drop a bow anchor in a small bay by the Bosphorus was unsuccessful – either the current was too strong and took it away or the sea was deeper than 50 metres but either way the anchor couldn’t reach bottom. The result of the exercise was the physical exhaustion of four sailors.  Changing her mind and not wishing to drop an anchor, Helon then moored proudly in the very centre of Istanbul, by a concrete wall, dispersing a couple of dozen fishermen.      
Apart from the occasional waves of passing vessels the place – an area called Arnavut, pretty elite quarters - turned out to be rather pleasant.  After several days’ rest the Commander decided to organise his exhibition right on board Helon.  So the idle crowds sauntering around were treated to some taste of adventure.

In spite of being completely impromptu and with an utter lack of preparation, after just one day our exhibition had brought us lots of useful contacts, positive emotions and - most surprisingly - an unusually impressive amount of donations for fuel.  The next Monday traditionally started with the visit of yet another smiley person who inquired if Helon had permission to moor by that wall.  Naturally there was nothing of the sort, so the following day with a graceful somersault Helon left, looking for another mooring .
The other mooring happened to be a tiny river entering the sea of Marmara.  Breaking through a couple of reefs, Helon managed to enter the river mouth and by a miracle moored along the steep bank.  Later a southerly wind rattled the crew, rocking the schooner on the waves and digging her keel into the pebbled bottom.  But no harm was done to nature
So all-in-all, that was the first leg of Helon’s adventure.
Spending the winter months in a local creek, Helon bravely took all the blows of Marmara on her chest.  Some small exhibitions were organised on board.  Eventually we became a kind of local Istanbul sightseeing spot. 

During a freezing spell we also held some decent parties.

And when the weather was better the passing crowd was taking photographs with the back ground of Helon’s Gargoyle, sometimes climbing onboard and even buying some of the Commander’s canvases. 

So the severe Istanbul winter came to its Grand Finale, and a new itch for adventure appeared on the horizon...     



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